This week we were fortunate to have a truly distinguished guest, Duncan Mara, Emeritus Professor in civil engineering at the University of Leeds. The title of his talk was ‘Why do children die in poor countries?’ I had naively assumed it was something to do with famine and malnutrition, but the answer proved to be more shocking than that.
Professor Mara has been an adviser to the United Nations and the World Health Organisation on public health. His special interests are in water, sanitation and health in developing countries; low-cost sewerage; low-cost wastewater treatment and reuse. Infant mortality in poor countries, most of those in Sub-Saharan Africa, is largely due to poor hygiene resulting from lack of clean water and failure to separate people from excrement.
With the dispassionate understatement and cool objectivity of a scientist, Professor Mara took us through some depressing statistics: 29% of the world’s population lack safe water, and 4.5 billion people don’t have toilets in their homes. The excellent work done by NGO’s and organisations such as Water Aid and The Water & Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG) is literally a drop in the ocean: the global need would require some 10,000 Water Aids to solve the problem. There is no other single issue that can impact the health, education, economy, equality and progress of all people than the need for clean water and sanitation.
Frustratingly, child mortality is preventable by simple low tech measures, but governments often seem incapable of organising them on the scale required. There is some good news in the statistics, however: the number of children under 5 dying has fallen from over 12 million in 1990 to 5 million in 2006. Professor Mara attributed a significant part of that improvement to growing prosperity in China.
This was a well attended open meeting, and we are grateful to Professor Mara for a stimulating and thought provoking lecture.